Judy Garland's trip through Oz

Single-mom show 'Kate Brasher' shines; 'Boycott' is a sensitive civil- rights drama

CBS wants its share of the female audience, so the network is loading up its Saturday night lineup (opposite the NBC's "XFL") with shows like "That's Life," about a 30something woman going back to college. And now Kate Brasher (Feb. 24, 9-10 p.m.) begins a new drama about a single mother raising two teenage sons after her husband's desertion.

"Kate Brasher" is well-written, elegantly acted, and a pleasure to watch. Best of all, its intelligence will appeal to both young and older viewers.

With only a high school education, Kate struggles as a waitress during the day and a bowling alley charwoman at night. When the alley owner stiffs her for $300 (her rent money), she turns to a legal-aid office for help. Meanwhile, her young sons are flirting with disaster at school.

Her struggle for justice sets Kate off in a new direction. The fact that she is a woman of faith (not, so far, defined by denomination) is indicated with tender respect. And as she tries to find answers to her difficult life, she is open to spiritual guidance.

Mary Stewart Masterson plays the title role with such nimble flair she makes us forget that she's a movie star. Masterson is easy to love, and she plays opposite an almost mystically sarcastic Rhea Perlman as a newly minted lawyer who took 14 years getting through college and law school after raising her family.

Hector Elizondo completes the threesome as the world-weary director of the "Brother's Keeper" free legal center. His atheism will certainly become a foil to Kate's religious outlook.

This unusual family fare is meant to uplift. And though there's a twinge or two of sentimentality about it, the show strives for realism and an authentic feeling that's rare on the tube these days. Its overall effect is, in fact, heartening. Amid all the human suffering and injustice on the mean streets of the city, there are still those doing their best to do well by their neighbors.

* * *

Two TV movies this week appeal for different reasons. HBO's stunning Boycott (Feb. 24, 8-10 p.m.) is a masterful tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott.

In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man and was hauled off to jail. Her daring act ignited a protest that was to last 381 days and is generally credited with launching the civil rights movement.

Jeffrey Wright plays Dr. King with grace, intelligence, and a spiritual gravity that illumines King's dedication to nonviolent resistance - civil resistance based not only on the teachings of Gandhi, but on the Christian gospel of returning love for hate.

The straight-forward story is told sensitively and stylishly, emphasizing the daily courage of ordinary people determined to make a better future for their children. But it also reveals the kind of commitment and intelligence it took to lead so great a movement.

* * *

For those who loved and pitied the star of "The Wizard of Oz" and "A Star Is Born," ABC's four-hour miniseries, Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (Feb. 25 and 26, 9-11 p.m.) will shed a little more light on her tragic life. Based on the book by her daughter Lorna Luft, this film is no "Mommie Dearest" tell-all. In fact, the writer lovingly explains and tries to excuse her famous mother's excesses.

Hooked on applause at a young age, Judy seeks a career in Hollywood, loves her dad and sisters, is constantly at war with her mother, and develops a lifelong addiction to drugs. (It seems she wasn't thin enough at 14 to please movie mogul Louis B. Mayer.) At 16 she won the hearts of moviegoers with "The Wizard Of Oz," but MGM exploited the child wonder until she toppled over periodically with exhaustion.

Ms. Luft, Liza Minnelli's sister, loves her mother and forgives all her trespasses.

What viewers will see here is the tragedy as the family experienced it, together with an homage to the performer's extraordinary talent.

Australian actress Judy Davis is marvelous in the role as the adult Judy, taking on Garland's style and vigor without seeming to mimic her or caricature her performances.

Young Tammy Blanchard is the ideal young Judy - bright-eyed, vivacious, and original.

* * *

This week sees the premiere of a new sit-com based on the film "Kiss Me, Guido."

Danny Nucci stars in "Some of My Best Friends" (CBS, Feb. 28, 8-8:30 p.m.) about two guys, one straight and one gay, who accidentally accept each other as roommates not knowing the other's history.

Nucci plays Frankie Zito, a macho Italian-American from the Bronx. And while the show plays off of and also debunks stereotypes about homosexuals, it more or less reenforces stereotypes about Italian-Americans.

"To a certain degree stereotypes come from a certain amount of truth," Nucci said in a recent interview. "But it's not so focused on Frankie's [Italian heritage]. "Will and Grace" is more about sex. Our show is more about the odd couple. It's about two different worlds. "Warren [played by Jason Bateman] is disappointed in life. Frankie wants to get all he can out of life.... But they have personal ideas about what the other is like, and they find out different."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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